Six Nations: Wales could be the surprise package

Up for it: New skipper Alun-Wyn Jones is a proven leader. Picture: Getty Images

Up for it: New skipper Alun-Wyn Jones is a proven leader. Picture: Getty Images

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He has been left holding the baby while his boss is off planning the downfall of the All Blacks and Rob Howley is happy for Wales to be excluded from the majority of RBS Six Nations title talk.

The competition this year has been widely billed as a two-horse race between holders England and Ireland, winners in 2014 and 2015.

The tournament favourites meet in Dublin on 18 March for what could be a Grand Slam decider, but many twists and turns are likely before that scenario can be seriously contemplated.

Wales face both teams in Cardiff – England on 11 February and Ireland a month later – during a campaign that will see them targeting a first Six Nations crown since 2013.

Howley, in charge this season while Warren Gatland concentrates on British and Irish Lions business ahead of the summer tour to New Zealand, oversaw Wales’ most successful autumn series since 2002 last November as victories were recorded over South Africa, Argentina and Japan.

And when he was last at the helm four years ago, Wales recovered from a comprehensive opening Six Nations weekend loss against Ireland to reel off four successive wins and secure Six Nations silverware in scintillating fashion by crushing England 30-3 in Cardiff.

“It is good that no-one is talking about Wales,” Howley said.

“I spoke about our home form in the autumn and it is nice to have England and Ireland at home.

“We back ourselves at the Principality Stadium and have a very good record in the Six Nations, in particular at home, and we do not have a bad record away.

“The challenge for us from a selection point of view is the first two games [against Italy and England] with a six-day turnaround. That is a challenge.

“Italy, first up, will be hugely competitive and they have a new coaching team. They came up short against Tonga in the autumn but had a fantastic win over South Africa.

“They will be a big challenge but we have been to Italy before and we have a lot of experience, which we will count on. We have young talent as well and it is about getting a blend.

“We have talked a little bit in selection about the teams we put out against Italy and England. It will be exciting in the build-up to see how the young talent performs against experienced players in training.

“The dynamics of the squad with the new captain and new talent will create an edge we want.”

Lock Alun Wyn Jones will lead Wales in the Six Nations, taking over from flanker Sam Warburton, who led the country in a record 49 Tests, while Howley’s 36-man squad includes seven uncapped players, featuring the likes of Wasps flanker Thomas Young, Leicester back Owen Williams and Scarlets wing Steff Evans. Howley added: “Sam is looking forward to the Six Nations. We have a leadership group and I gave him the option of being part of it, and he said: ‘absolutely’.

“He has a lot to offer and that is the key. He can play six and seven, and he has proved that.

“He is trying to evolve his game and there is no-one working harder than Sam. By not having the responsibility and accountability [as captain] when Wales comes first, but Sam Warburton does, that will be the best for Sam.”

Despite winning three games from four during the autumn, Wales had their critics following what many viewed as unspectacular performances, but there is no doubt that they have built winning momentum heading into the Six Nations.

“A lot of our players are excited coming into the Six Nations,” Howley added.

“There is a freshness about us and there will be an edge, a huge competition for places. We are looking forward to the first game.”

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